April 2014

The World in a Droplet

The World in a Droplet

Macro Photography can be a Challenge

The Basic Premise

My inspiration for the world in a droplet idea came as a result of seeing an image of a drop of water on a hypodermic needle on the web. You could see a thin reflection on the base of the droplet, which was very small in the frame, but you couldn’t see what it was. I had the idea that I could have the reflection of a world atlas in the droplet and, of course, larger in the frame.

Testing the Theory

Although I was confident that I could pull this off, I knew it might be difficult. I thought I could get the magnification, but I wasn’t sure about the rest. How to get a drop on a wire (I don’t have a hypodermic needle), how to get the map reflected and what about the necessary depth of field. A pilot project seemed the thing to test the theory. I didn’t take any production shots of this, so you will have to use your imagination.

Daylight seemed perfect, so I set up on the surface by the kitchen window. I took my floor stand (a light stand) and, using electrician’s tape, fixed a cardboard tube from a roll of aluminium basting foil leftover from the Christmas turkey. To this I taped an empty Bic biro carcass with a blue paperclip wedged into the end, and bent it into a sort of hook shape. Using a second biro carcass, I poured water into the open end until I got a droplet on the end of the paperclip hook. Actually, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to get this to happen quickly because it proved a nightmare to reproduce when I did the final world in a droplet image.

Equipment wise, I used my old D300 Nikon as it would give more magnification than a full frame (the droplet was only 1.5-2 mm wide). I fitted an old 75-300 mm Nikkor lens, and using a set of reversing rings, fixed an old 50 mm f1.8 Nikkor to the end. I quickly found that I had more reach than I really needed so zoomed the 70-300 to a wider setting, and took my shot.

The World in a Droplet

First Stab..

So what did I learn? Firstly, I’d have been better off setting up somewhere other than the backlit kitchen window, because I was getting a lot of flare and unwanted reflections in the droplet and had to shutter out the window. Secondly, focusing is really difficult because there is so little depth of field. If you move the tripod it can take an age to even locate the droplet again, never mind focus on it. You aren’t able to clearly see the text on the map when you focus on the droplet, so it is very hard to get it sharp (at least with my eyes). Partly because you can’t define the letters, partly because it’s hard to make fine enough adjustments to the focus (more on this below).

Secondly, the map image appears to be on the rear surface of the water droplet, so you have to focus there to get the map sharp. This means you can’t see sharp edges on the droplet itself, and the paper clip is not properly in focus. In fact the paperclip would have been better parallel to the plane of focus to avoid so many depth issues. When I do this for real, I will have to use focus stacking.

Thirdly, the map was upside down in the droplet (of course you idiot!!), so that needs turning upside down before you start.

Doing it for Real

Household chores notwithstanding, it was a few days before I got to try this again. Time to approach things more professionally and turn the house upside down in the process! Clearly this is best when your wife is out for a few hours. I wanted a more adjustable setup as I’d had real problems changing the position of the map first time round. I wanted to be able to adjust the field of view in the droplet, so that meant adjusting the position for and aft, as well as from side to side. Secondly, I wanted to be able to position the wire with the drop on it a little more precisely (there was no adjustment on the cardboard tube setup) too. Finally I wanted the droplet to be side lit to avoid flare.

The World in a Droplet

Getting the Droplet on the Paper Clip

This was the hardest part of the shoot bar none! After much trial and error I came up with the setup shown. I was able to use an old Lastolite reflector holder on my floor lighting stand as shown. This worked out fabulously because the spring grip made the perfect holder for the biro, which could then be slid backwards and forwards for perfect positioning in the frame. My only regret was it took a couple of hours, and a roll of electician’s tape, for me to realize I could do this!!


Getting the droplet on the paperclip proved difficult, but here are a few tips. The angle of the biro carcass needs to be quite steep so that water runs out of the end quite quickly. This makes it more likely to run around the curve of the paperclip, and consequently to leave droplets. Too slow and it just drops out of the end of the tube (counter-intuitive to be sure). Don’t forget to place a cloth underneath to catch the drops! The attachment system for the clip that worked best, and I tried many, was to have a cable tie underneath the clip as shown below. The cable tie slows the water down and ensures that it is running over the paperclip.


The Photography, Getting in Close

Firstly, don’t forget to turn the map upside down if you haven’t already. Given the size of the droplet (approximately 2 mm) you need considerable magnification to fill the frame. My solution was to use a reversed 50 mm lens on the end of a longer lens. The longer the second lens, the greater the magnification. I used an old 75-300 f4.5-5.6 Nikkor from my film camera days. You will need a reversing ring to join them together, and I purchased mine (52 mm to 62 mm) from a UK company, SRB Photographic (formerly SRB-Griturn) that make and sell a wide variety of these specialist items.

Both lenses were focused at infinity, and the 50 mm aperture was set to f1.8. I’m not certain that a wide open aperture leads to the best quality/depth of field, but that will be an experiment for another day. The 75-300 zoom was set to f32 and I used the zoom control to finesse the magnification.

To focus, I moved the camera / lens setup back and forth on a Manfrotto 454 Micropositioning Sliding Plate. You can just see the lock screw poking out above the D300 on the tripod in the picture above. It can be surprisingly difficult to find an image at this magnification so be patient!

It goes without saying that to avoid camera shake you should use a remote release and mirror lock up.

Watch-Out!! Don’t Damage the Lens…

The rear element of the 50 mm Nikkor is flush with the back of the lens which is problematic. It is very easy to flick the paperclip onto it, and there is a risk of scratching the lens or getting water into the electronics. Even though this was a very old lens, I didn’t want to damage it, so after a few near misses I decided to use my smallest Kenko auto-extension tube as a lens hood for the back of the lens. I used the shortest one in order to minimize the risk of extra vignetting.

Focus Stacking

Depth of field at this magnification is very narrow and both the map, the paperclip and the edge of the droplet need to be sharp in the final image, so take separate images at each depth. The front of the droplet is unnecessary as it would obscure the view of the map. Using the 454 it was possible to get the 3 images required for the blend.

Post Processing

The images for the focus stack will be pin registered if you haven’t moved the tripod, so they can be loaded as layers into Photoshop without issue from Lightroom (or whichever way you choose). Any adjustments in Lightroom or Camera Raw should be made to each of the images before stacking them. In Photoshop, the sharp paperclip and map images can then be blended into the final image using layer masks. Here I took the opportunity to desaturate the background (i.e. the full sized map) a little to make the map inside the droplet all the more prominent. After that, some sharpening using your preferred method or plug-in finalizes the image.

The World in a Droplet

The World in a Droplet!

Cheers, R.

Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

Shooting Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

Time-off is Precious!

It’s been a while, in fact, as I think about it, I haven’t been to Gigrin since I purchased my D4. The last time I was there would have been 7th April 2011, 3 whole years ago to the day. Since I adopted cycling as a new pastime there has been increased pressure on my photography time, to a point where it can be months between structured shoots. But this week, I’ve booked in a couple of days shooting, of which this was the first.

Facilities at Gigrin

Hides for Photography & Filming

There are a range of Hides for the photographer. The ground level hides are adequate for photography for those with compact cameras and DSLRs, whilst the tower hides have been built for photographers with more professional equipment in mind. The Gateway hide is around 4m closer to the kites than the towers. The tower hides have a partial roof as protection, and a bench fitted to the rear of the hide with coat hooks on the left-hand side. This arrangement is ideal for panning overhead and gives a superb view of the kite’s surroundings. Newcomers to the tower hides should be aware that there is a green line on the floor that marks the most forward standing position so as not to frighten the birds.

Disabled Access

Four of the hides are wheelchair friendly, with ramps and internal access, and there is parking for up to four vehicles right outside the hides for those unable to walk the 100m from the regular car park. There is even a wheelchair accessible photographic hide with the same roof arrangements as the towers.

The Red Kite Shop

In the handy Red Kite Shop you can purchase a range of goods including binoculars, note pads, mugs, bird feeders and Red Kite clothing (T-shirts, Sweatshirts, Fleeces, Caps) books, paintings and videos.

The Photography


For our trip, we booked the larger tower hide, and I shot with my D4 and 600mm F4. To begin with I was using my 1.4 teleconverter as well, but, to be honest, that amount of reach really handicaps you because it restricts you to birds beyond the feeding zone where there is sufficient space in the viewfinder to pick them up and pan with them. You need too much precision to pick up birds in the middle distance, and this is unrealistic unless you are a seasoned professional wildlife photographer. Birds near-to will have their wings cropped, also not a good look! My pal Geoff was shooting with a D4 and a 200-400 F4, he had also started with a 2x teleconvertor but also found that he was better off without one.


To begin with it is very difficult to track the birds. You must practice shooting with both eyes open (to help you lock on, and see the best action coming) and over half an hour or so you will find you can pick the birds up in the viewfinder more easily. Even then you are at the mercy of your camera for finding focus. Always use continuous auto-focus and the highest frame rate that your camera can manage. To make life easier we were both shooting with Gimbal Heads. I found it best to focus on the tree line first. This makes the acquisition rate much higher when you target a bird in flight because the distance is much closer to that of the bird.

Another problem comes with losing focus when the birds dive for food. Red Kites do not land on the ground (though interestingly one did just that on Monday, and it is the first time I have ever seen it), so they dive steeply and swoop down picking up their food (or prey) in one really fast action. I found that I would lose the birds on the way down, and when I found them close to the ground again I had lost focus. I think that one technique that may help you with this is to stop focusing once the bird dives, then pick it up again on the floor. This works because the Kite will be at about the same distance from the camera and you won’t have been risking a refocus on the background as you swing the camera downwards once the bird has gone. On Nikon professional cameras you can adjust the timing of the refocus pause, which can also help you stay on the target.

I find that the best technique is to pick up a Kite in the distance, then follow it until it has filled the frame, or done something interesting. It is very tempting to take thousands of photographs of very distant birds because they seem larger to your eye than they do to the lens, but by being patient you can get some good shots that fill the frame. Make sure to start shooting just before the kite is large enough in the frame because they move very quickly and you can end up with clipped wings. Be careful to avoid shots of the bird flying away from your viewpoint or turning away from the lens. Some of your best shots will be obtained once the birds have thinned out (and the other visitors have gone home). This is because you are sufficiently practiced by then, and there are fewer birds to contaminate your shots. If possible you want to get the kite with space to fly into the frame. It can help to use the central focus point because it is more sensitive and also guarantees space in the frame, which ever way the bird is travelling, if you focus on the head.

Finally, don’t forget to try some vertical shots, and shots with more than one bird. Odd numbers seem to work better than evens for this.


In a change to my usual practice of using a couple of manual exposure settings (one for light and the other for shade) described elsewhere, I used a different technique due to the very flat lighting conditions. I set my camera to auto-ISO, with a minimum speed of 1000th of a second, then set a manual exposure of 1600th second at f4. I took a couple of test shots (repeated through the afternoon) to judge the exposure compensation that I would need shooting against the white sky. This ranged from 0.3 – 1.0 stops as the afternoon wore on, but this gave great results and I didn’t need to worry when the sun came out for the odd shot.

I usually turn vibration reduction off for shutter speeds above 500th second, but (in the heat of the moment, against the breeze, I didn’t realize it was turned on – easily done when you’ve covered up the switch with a waterproof camo-cover) I’m pleased to say that it didn’t seem to make any difference to the image sharpness.

Post Processing

These days I’m using lightroom for initial adjustments, then adding a quick mid-tone contrast boost to the bird itself using Tonal Contrast in Color Efex Pro, followed by my 3 or 4-pass sharpening routines in photoshop. Though I must say that the Raw Pre-sharpener algorithms in Sharpener Pro 3 are just as good and much faster to implement.

Spoils of the Day…

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